Benin Stories, Part 1

For weeks now, “put something on the blog” has been near the top of my to-do list, only to get pushed down by more pressing concerns…like “what am I going to do with all this junk,” “how am I going to work around this internet/power/water/phone outage”, “how am I going to get my motherboard fixed 500 kilometres from an Apple Store” or the latest thrown down by my project manager — “how am I going to make a nice short film with subtitles and good sound in less than a week with you breathing down my neck?” I have done crazy things in the name of professionalism here before though, like co-hosting a live radio show two hours after I got into a motorcycle accident (nobody freak out, all I have now are a few scars down my left arm and a weird story), leaving Cotonou at 5 a.m. to host a workshop in Pobè that I knew next to nothing about, or battling through multiple layers of bureaucracy, a federal election communications blackout, two postponements,  unexpected leave by key contacts, one dead motherboard, three power outages, dozens of tiny Internet outages which were just long enough to keep files from uploading, and a silly software mistake — the only part of this whole comedy of errors that was objectively my fault — to file what initially looked like a straightforward story for a freelance client. I don’t think I’ve ever been so tired in my life as I have been during the last week. On Friday morning, I realized I had forgotten to take the garbage out, and instead of getting up, I called Monsieur Alain who drives the garbage bike (a moto with a trailer attachment) and said I was still out of town, so he wouldn’t come by and ring the doorbell. Then I went back to bed for another hour, and only after that was I at all ready to go to work. Those times where I had a choice between work, sleep, spending time with other people, and blogging, blogging fell right down the list with the echoing bomp…bomp…bomp of a ball bouncing down basement stairs. So I owe you stories. A bunch of stories in fact. Let’s see…

 

At the beginning of October, I took a day off from work to go down to Ouidah with Anicet for the Festival international des jumeaux. It is a Vodoun thing…twins are considered magical and revered in Vodoun. Anicet, who loves and researches and practices Vodoun, wanted me to see it. Our first stop was an altar, the altar of the twins, maintained by an elderly priestess who Anicet seemed to know. Now, you know me, I’m an atheist. If a friend asked me to go to a Christian or Muslim service, my first instinct would be to say no. If I couldn’t talk my way out of it, I’d at least leave the room before all of the intimidating “commitment parts” started. But something moved me about this service, inside this corrugated-metal temple the size of a large washroom stall. The woman asked me what I wanted to say to the twins. I said that I was grateful for getting this far and that I would love it if they’d see me home safe. We alternated ritual shots of cheap gin and flat Sprite — apparently the twins love sugar even more than gin or chicken blood, the usual things one offers to Vodoun spirits. The grey-haired priestess murmured in a language I didn’t understand. Long minutes later, she told me they had “accepted everything” — our gin, our Sprite, our coins and our wishes. I will never know what, but something in that temple made me want to cry with gratitude and relief. Was it the kind, serene, if-you-need-to-talk-I’ll-listen look on the priestess’s face? Was it my deep-seated fear of dying out here that had just been quietened by the spirit’s reassurances? Or was it just emotional exhaustion and feeling like I could use all the help I could get, even though it came from spirits I didn’t even believe in? Who knows?

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The festival itself was like a combination of Halloween, a summer street party and what I always thought Day of the Dead would be like. Anicet had taken on a tour guiding contract and had to pick up clients, a wealthy businesswoman and her family from Togo, so I was there on my own. Street vendors sold large bags of candy that adults would walk around with. Kids — many obviously twins, dressed in identical bright pagne suits — would sit with their parents behind small bright altars with effigies of twins. Every time someone, usually a kid, called out “Quelque chose pour les jumeaux?” (something for the twins?) you would have to give them candy. If you had no candy, then you had to give change. If you had no change, then they would jog behind you through the crowd, not letting you go until you came up with something — a pen? a leftover fried doughball? a keychain? your shoes? Of course, my white skin and pagne shirt marked me out as a tourist — rich, feckless and easy to wheedle. “Quelque chose pour les jumeaux?” a boy said, after my candy and change had all run out. “Je n’ai plus rien,” I answered. “Et ça c’est quoi?” he said, pointing to my half-drunk Coke bottle. My Coke disappeared into the Lord of the Flies-like whirl of grasping hands. It was like Halloween, but a little sinister, like the old Celtic version of Halloween. Trick or treat! No treat? Well, these were the tricks. I wanted to break a bill to get more change to buy candy, so I went to a pop-up bar where two skinny guys with colourful outfits and sunglasses, who both kind of resembled Baron Samedi from the Haitian Vodoun stories, were handing out generous shots of sodabi, local moonshine. I paid. They poured. We clinked glasses. I have to give them credit for this much — it was very good sodabi, herbal and surprisingly refreshing for hard liquor. If this was their cousins’ homebrew (as opposed to a commercial product), their cousins were very good home brewers. I asked for my change.  “It’s coming,” said one of the Barons, making no effort to find my change as he continued pouring shots. When he saw my eyes still on him ten minutes later, he and the other Baron started to run. I took off after them, but the crowd parted to let a car pass, and when the car had gone through, the Barons were on the other side of it, never to be seen again. Also never to be seen again were my 8000 francs (about $13, but an absolute fortune here, a week’s wages for some people). So there I was, stranded at a street festival in Ouidah with no money whatsoever and 500 kids asking for candy. When Anicet found me an hour or so later, he told me that his clients had asked for time to themselves at a restaurant. He said all right and went home for a quick bite to eat. When he came back to the restaurant, the clients were gone and all of their phones rang and rang. They’d done a runner. For poor Anicet, it was more than $100 gone and a day of his life he’d never get back. Trick or treat indeed.

 

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A week later, I had to go down to Porto-Novo for some paperwork. In my few months in Benin, I’ve gotten the impression that not many people go to Porto-Novo unless they have something to do there. Unlike paved, orderly, comparatively calm Cotonou, Porto is a giant village, muddy, potholed and perpetually under construction. When my paperwork was done, I decided to go play tourist, and went to Songhaï, a giant zero-waste organic farm that is one of Porto-Novo’s main tourist attractions. The tour was aimed at recruiting future organic farming interns, and went into a lot of technical detail on everything from what animal breeds are raised to how waste is repurposed (“Nothing goes to waste here! The shit from the bottoms of the bird cages goes right into the biofuel processing tank!”) but I did see ostriches, so there was that.

Then I ended up at the da Silva Museum. My guidebook had been weirdly derisive about it, but it had that eclectic jumble of strangely beautiful things that makes African museums so much fun: in the middle of a detailed and interesting historical narrative, a guide will stop to point out a human skeleton on an anatomy-class stand, a stuffed crocodile, a vintage camera, a framed portrait of Mandela, a shed of vintage motorcycles, or a beautiful inlaid cabinet that someone brought back from Pakistan one time.  Going to a museum in Africa is like opening a giant steamer trunk.

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Steamer trunk aside, this museum was dedicated to Benin’s Afro-Brazilian community, who, in an incongruous but very Béninois twist, are mainly Muslim. Some are descended from freed slaves who were able to return to West Africa after abolition in Brazil; others are descended from Brazilian slave traders, many from one man with the disturbingly cheery nickname of Chacha. This Chacha was based in Ouidah, where his descendants still live, and his heir (his sixth or seventh great-great-grandson who is five or six years younger than I am) is still known as Chacha, which must be a heavy legacy to carry. The main square in Ouidah is known as Place Chacha, and when I was there, it was a souvenir market, just a few hundred meters from a concrete-topped mass grave of slaves who had been thrown in alive when it was decided they were too old, ill or exhausted to survive the journey to Brazil or America. A souvenir market now stands on the place where Chacha’s men once traded human slaves for cloth and beads.

Back to the Da Silva museum…a few blocks away from the museum, included in your admission ticket, is a beautiful memorial to Toussaint Louverture, the father of Haitian independence, and to all the victims of the slave trade, of slave rebellions and of colonial violence. A sculpture of the “Tree of Liberty” arches over a courtyard, with an anteroom lined with photos of Black leaders and heroes from all walks of life. There’s also an exhibit, part of the museum proper, about the similarities between West African and Haitian Vodoun rituals. One of my Béninois co-workers once said that if he could go to Haiti and walk where the West African slaves walked, he could come home and die happy. I thought of our Haitian-Canadian midwifery consultant, Tania, and hoped she had seen this before she left. People in power assumed that slaves stolen from West Africa and taken to places like Brazil and Haiti would be too disoriented to keep hold on their culture, their language, their faiths…but they assumed wrong.

Stay tuned for the next instalment of Bénin Stories…Abomey, Bohicon and Kétou! And of course, Pobè 🙂

 

 

 

 

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